& Events

International discussion on the fight against poverty

Feb 26, 2024 | News

Only nine projects have been awarded European funding in the field of social innovation, the only one in Central Europe being the 4IM project “Miskolc shall be a place for everyone”, a municipal initiative. A similar effort to that in Miskolc is underway in the industrialised parts of Tuscany, where the fight against poverty is a major challenge. At the end of November 2023, the leaders and experts of three northern Italian cities, Livorno, Capannori and Lucca, presented the social problems of the region to experts from Miskolc and Košice, sharing their experiences. Apart from the organisational and operational similarities, the main difference from the practice in Miskolc is the rich and long-standing tradition of volunteering in the Tuscan region and the link between the social services that build on it. The number of poor people in Italy has doubled in the last ten years, prompting Italian social workers and city leaders to constantly look for ways to improve social services.

Rising Italian poverty

As a result of the successive economic, COVID and migration crises, poverty now affects many more people and has emerged as a new phenomenon in the middle class of Italian society. According to experts, poverty in the country doubled between 2008 and 2018, with the number of families living in extreme poverty estimated at 2.1 million and the number of homeless people at 100,000.

“The last ten years have seen an explosion in social needs, which gives us an opportunity to reflect on the social policy mistakes of the last 30 years, as we were not prepared for the latest challenges,” said Andrea Raspanti, Vice Mayor of Livorno in charge of social affairs, adding, “The European Union has given us the opportunity to develop an integrated social response to these phenomena, which puts the individual in need at the centre of a more integrated professional approach than ever before.”

Livorno is the same size as Miskolc and faces similar social challenges. In addition to a legacy of a significant industrial past, the city has recently seen the arrival of refugees living in overcrowded public institutions and apartments on the northern edge of the city, giving professionals not only a greater but also a more complex social task than before. The response to this situation has been the integrated social solution, which provides a one-stop-shop for access to a wide range of available services. Integrated social case management includes municipal assistance with income, employment, training, physical and mental health, housing and other social problems.

The culture of volunteering

In addition to all these challenges, an important difference between the Hungarian and the Košice experience is the particularly rich tradition of volunteering in Tuscany. The largest such organisation in the city is the Misericordia (“Mercy”), founded in Florence in 1244, which has been helping the most needy for centuries, even helping them in patient transportation. The organisation has around 670,000 volunteers nationwide, of which 200 are active in Livorno. They are complemented by around 160 other volunteers from the Charity Service of the Order of Malta and dozens of other smaller organisations.

Although the reports from Košice and Miskolc suggest that volunteering is evident in both cities, the extent of volunteering in terms of the number of participants differs significantly from the one in Tuscany. 

One important direction for social development was summarised by the Vice Mayor of Livorno: “Health service is publicly available to all members of society, but social services have so far been available only to a little part of it. Now we want to change this, because the number of people in need has increased recently. That’s why we’ve set up four integrated service centres, also linked to employment services, which anyone can contact and which can provide them with complex support.”

Working poor and the minimum income

The needy include not only the 300 known homeless people in Livorno, but also those who have jobs and work but have insufficient income to support themselves (the working poor). In addition to integrated social assistance, they are also eligible for minimum income support, which is a temporary income support (typically for a few months) based on their individual situation, providing them with the additional amount needed to live a decent human life. The maximum amount is currently €400-700, decided on a case-by-case basis.

Social psychologists and community coaches at work

The operations of the integrated social project vary slightly from one city to another, depending on local conditions. While Livorno operates from a single base, Capannori, a rural town of 50,000 inhabitants, has 10 local branches.

Matteo Francesconi, Deputy Mayor of Capannori in charge of social affairs, summarised their work as follows: “Local government is the institution that is closest to the people. Our aim is to stop the impoverishment of the population caused by crises. The majority of social problems is rooted in unemployment, and tackling it requires an increasingly integrated response. We meet every month to discuss each person’s case, their individual and family situation, and to see where and how we can help. In addition to professionals from the municipality, a social psychologist and a community coach are also involved in this work.”

In integrated social work, the three departments of the Capannori municipality, Social Services, Health and Employment combine their competences to be effective in helping those in need.

Six social psychologists are also involved. They do not provide counselling or therapy, unlike the usual psychological services, but maintain a dialogue with families and children, helping them to identify and resolve conflicts, while providing valuable information to the municipal experts about the problems of the people concerned.

Lessons learned

The social problems and municipal responses in Tuscany are somewhat different from the challenges and social services in Hungary, but the functioning of the institutional framework is instructive for the professionals in Miskolc and Košice (who also draw detailed professional lessons from the study visit). Indeed, the Tuscan approach is based on teamwork within authorities and between volunteers and authorities, as well as on assistance at the level of the individual and a close link between services. The helpers of local public institutions and voluntary organisations naturally coordinate and act to achieve common goals and solve social problems that affect everyone. And the example of Italy’s efforts to fight poverty highlights the importance of communication and transparency, and the crucial role of a culture of cooperation.